Boundless enthusiasm. This is what comes across most clearly in the photos that make up Too Fly Not to Fly, a book published last year that invites children ages three to seven to think critically about issues such as health and colorism, using words connected to letters of the alphabet—D is for dream, H is for history, Y is for youth. The book also contains a collection of bright, playful, and ultimately thoughtful photos—some staged, some spontaneous—that celebrate Chicago and its youngest occupants.
Writer Briana McLean, coauthor of Too Fly Not to Fly, says she and photographer and fellow author Desmond Owusu used this approach because children spend a large portion of their early years learning the alphabet. “In addition to having meaningful and culturally relevant discussions with students, we also wanted to introduce new vocabulary to them,” McLean says, citing the influential 1972 linguistics book Black English as one of the inspirations for Too Fly.
McLean, who’s from Denver, and Owusu, who’s from Chicago’s Burnside neighborhood, met in 2011 when they taught at Trinity United Child Care in Beverly and Betty Shabazz Academy in Chatham, respectively. She calls working with Owusu “a dream.”
“He really dedicates himself to creating positive energy in Chicago,” she says, “and everything he does is a reflection of that.”
By July 2015 the pair had begun taking groups of their students on day trips throughout the city. While many of the photos were shot in the students’ surrounding neighborhoods—Bronzeville, the South Loop, and Marquette Park—McLean and Owusu also made a point of giving them experiences they weren’t as familiar with, like taking the Chicago Water Taxi from Chinatown to the LaSalle stop in River North.
“It’s really special to have developed such a strong bond with students that their families trust you enough to let their children be a part of a project that you and your friend have always wanted to create,” McLean says of the trips. McLean and Owusu’s ultimate goal is to build black children’s self-esteem by creating materials where the kids can really see themselves and their peers.
McLean says this became especially important when she began to see students doubt their self-worth as “a result of the negative depictions of blackness that the world was continually showing them.” This self-doubt manifested itself as inattentiveness and even bullying. She cites James Baldwin as another guiding force for the book, paraphrasing him at length: ” ‘In order to survive you have to really dig down deep into yourself and recreate yourself according to no image that yet exists in America. You have to decide who you are and force the world to deal with you and not this idea of you.’ It was watching four-, five-, and six-year-old children grapple with the fact that the world still has yet to know and accurately represent who they are,” she says.
The pair have ambitious plans for their project. In May they’ll participate in the fifth annual African American Children’s Book Fair in Baltimore. They also developed a partnership with the African American Male Achievement Program in Oakland, California, to create a book specific to children in that community. And they’ve collaborated with Chicago-based musician Teddy Jackson, who wrote the song “The Flyest Singalong” after reading Too Fly, producing a soon-to-be-released music video to accompany it. McLean emphasized that proceeds from sales of the book will go toward promoting it to schools and publishing more copies. “We’re not living off the book by any means,” she says.
There’s even talk of taking part in one of the biggest and oldest traditions in Chicago: “We’re also hoping to get our own Too Fly Not to Fly float in this year’s Bud Billiken parade,” says McLean. Owusu, meanwhile, hopes the book will be a call to action for each child who picks it up. “This started out as an idea. I want children to know ideas and words can really change the world.” —DANIELLE A. SCRUGGS